I tune the radio to WLS, and the insistent voice of Tony Brown breaks me out of my trance. It’s Saturday, December 9, the day after a bitterly divided Florida Supreme Court stretched (and possibly broke) Florida law in order to allow a statewide recount of undervotes in the presidential election. My family and I are driving back to Rockford from Chicago’s Midway Airport, just hours before an equally divided U.S. Supreme Court will stop the recount in an activist decision more reminiscent of Earl Warren’s reign as chief justice than William Rehnquist’s.
“The state of Florida is in chaos! Absolute chaos!” claims Brown, and his caller agrees: “I just saw a headline that reads, ‘Anarchy Reigns in Florida.'” That’s funny; we’ve just returned from a week in Orlando—or rather, Walt Disney World, that Never-Never-Land that bears about as much resemblance to Orlando as Washington, D.C., does to the rest of the country. I can’t say that I saw am anarchy or chaos; in fact, everything seemed perfectly scripted, right down to the airplanes and buses—which alway’s arrived and departed on time—and the restaurants, which may have charged an arm and a leg but served their meals promptly and courteously. If this be chaos, let us make the most of it.
As Rockford draws closer, I’m hoping a bit of that Florida anarchy has rubbed off on my adopted hometown. When we left, our own recount was under way; with any luck, it created enough chaos that our streets have been properly plowed, which would be die first time in the six winters we’ve lived here.
Our contested election is for the 13th District seat on the Winnebago County Board. Tat may not seem nearly as exciting as the presidential recount, but it made a splash here in Rockford. As in the “important” election, the margin of victory was very small (45 votes), and the loser has asked for a hand recount because the counting machines appear to have classified some actual votes as undervotes. With Al Gore’s loss, the Democrats have effectively been frozen out of the presidency and both houses of Congress, but there’s a fair amount at stake here, too: If the election is reversed, one party will control three quarters of Hie seats on the county board, allowing it to impose its will even on issues where a supermajority is required. At the very least, that would mean local campaign contributors won’t have to spread their money around.
Our recount, however, has come at the request of William Peterson, the Republican incumbent who lost to Democratic challenger James Peterson. As you might expect, when the roles are reversed, the rhetoric is, too. The Democratic executive director of the Rockford Board of Elections, Nancy Strain, has told the local Gannett paper (LGP) that “Hand counts are never as accurate as the machines.” After a discovery recount of five of the 19 precincts in the district, she dismissed concerns that the number of ballots in two precincts didn’t match the reported totals. “There were a few ballots missing,” she said, “but that’s because they’re in another box.”
Meanwhile, David Brown, the attorney for the Republican Peterson, sounds oddly like Gore attorney David Boies. “What we’re concerned about is the high number of undervotes and illegible votes that maybe weren’t picked up by the machines . . . What we want to make sure is that the will of the voter is followed,” he told the LCP. That wouldn’t mean counting chads—hanging, pregnant, or dimpled: Rockford has adopted a new optical-scanning system which combines the efficiency of a machine count with a much more secure paper trail than that left by our old punch-card system.
I know David Brown; he’s a good attorney and an even better man, and if he believes there are grounds for a hand recount, he’s probably right. I suspect, though, that there are any number of people in Florida who would say the same about Judge Charles Burton in Palm Beach County or his counterpart in Broward County. And that, in the end, is the point. If we truly want equal protection under the law, we’re not going to get it from black-robed state or federal justices relying on a skewed interpretation of an illegally passed constitutional amendment. True equal protection comes from relying in a community where we may not know everyone, but we know someone who knows someone who does. David Brown undoubtedly wants to win this contest for his client, but he also has a stake in Rockford and Winnebago County. Both his life in this community and his character—formed in large part by that life—place limits on how far he will go.
That’s the reason why almost all states leave most of die details of elections—including federal ones—up to counties or local municipalities. The problem comes when outsiders—politicians, lawyers, even judges—view our communities merely as resources to be mined for votes. Does Al Gore or David Boies or the Florida Supreme Court really care about making sure that “all the voters are heard” in West Palm Beach? Of course not, but Charles Burton probably does, if only because they are the people among whom he lives and works. Who’s more likely to have the interests of the residents of Winnebago County Board District 13 at heart, David Brown or some hired gun from state or national Republican headquarters? There’s no doubt in my mind.
The radio signal is breaking up as another caller tells Tony Brown that too few people realize that God reigns, not men. Brown heartily agrees, saying that he assumes this means the caller isn’t too concerned which man becomes president. Oh, no, the caller replies. “Its important that Bush win because of the Supreme Court. Without liberal activist judges, there would be no abortions in this country.”
I sigh as we exit I-90 onto the unplowed streets of Rockford. Chaos or no, it’s good to be home.